Divine Inspiration

May 20, 2003 |

The Dialogues of Time and Entropy
By Aryeh Lev Stollman
Riverhead. 240 pages. $24.94.

What would it be like to have the inspiration of a genius? Only a handful of humans will ever know firsthand. But the rest of us can contemplate the hints of modern genius strewn throughout The Dialogues of Time and Entropy, Aryeh Lev Stollman’s first collection of short fiction.

Stollman, a neuroradiologist at Manhattan’s Mount Sinai Medical Center, is the author of two critically acclaimed novellas, The Far Euphrates and The Illuminated Soul. His spare prose, studded with religious and scientific terminology, keeps the reader at a distance. That sense of remove increases with the brevity of these stories.

Stollman’s protagonists in The Dialogues are composers, neuroanatomists, scriptural scholars, science fiction authors, and theoretical physicists. Even when the narrators are children, they’re talented science students or amateur poets. In a few cases, their work is described in grandiose terms, like the composer in “The Adornment of Days,” who, lost in thought about the opera he is writing, “suddenly hears, in sweeping and glorious bitonal progressions—A major with F-sharp minor, E-flat major, and C minor—the whole host of heaven, singing before him.” More often, though, the protagonists refer to their own work matter-of-factly. The narrator of the title story remarks casually that in searching for the cure to a horrifying disease, polymerase dementia, he “mapped out the amino acid sequence and, more crucially, its cross-linkage and three-dimensional structure.” Sure, no problem.

More troublesome for these brainy characters are the challenges of human relations. As readers, we expect geniuses to be alienated from their families and from the rest of us moderately intelligent people (see, for example, Good Will Hunting). And true to form, a pervasive sense of loneliness fills this book. A man who gets no more excited about deconstructing molecules than tying his shoelaces, the narrator of the title story can’t connect with his wife, a physicist: “Ahuva was brilliant,” he says, “but she made no sense to me.” The composer to whom the “host of heaven” reveals itself so gloriously can only share intimacy with a nearly anonymous young man in one of Jerusalem’s public parks. It’s not easy being a genius.

The most compelling question about men and women of incomprehensible brilliance is, perhaps, how they got to be that way. Stollman’s stories never attack this question head-on, but throughout the book creative and intellectual inspiration is often intriguingly conflated with spiritual enlightenment: The opera composer hears divinity in his work; the misunderstood physicist in the title story leaves her husband in Canada to join a religious settlement in the West Bank; a world-renowned painter in “The Creation of Anat” uses his neuroanatomist daughter as a model for Eve. These stories raise questions about the relationship between faith and genius, whose answers lie beyond the purview of fiction. But, ultimately, Stollman’s work is refreshing for treating science, art, music, and religion with equal amounts of reverence and wonder.

While some contemporary Jewish writers portray the Orthodox as preciously exotic or hopelessly foreign, Stollman captures what the narrator of “If I Have Found Favor in Your Eyes”—a secular teenager with a new set of Orthodox neighbors—calls the “enchantment brought about by the serenity and conviction” of religious Jews. The collection leaves one wondering whether this “serenity and conviction,” or some other characteristic of the Jews, contributes to intellectual virtuosity. In other words, is there something Jewish about genius?

To what degree is it relevant, for example, that Einstein, Freud, and Marx all came from more or less assimilated Jewish homes? Or, is this, and the fact that Jews have raked in about 215 Nobel Prizes, pure coincidence? Don’t expect an answer from The Dialogues of Time and Entropy—just more fascinating questions about the nature of creativity and faith. Not quite a work of genius, it is nonetheless a haunting, enlightening, and powerful collection.

[Originally published in New Voices.]